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What a Difference a Decade Makes: A Comparison of Prime Time Sex, Language,


A new study, by the Parents Television Council finds network television content standards in freefall as we enter the 21st century.


The Parents Television Council study What a Difference a Decade Makes: A Comparison of Prime Time Sex, Language, and Violence in 1989 and 99 found a significant increase in the levels of objectionable content broadcast by the networks.

Analysts reviewed the offensive language, sexual and violent content of all prime time programming airing on every network during the first four weeks of the 1989-1990 and the 1999-2000 television seasons. Both visual depictions and verbal allusions to sex and violence were counted, as were all offensive uses of language.

The studys quantification of the per-hour rate of offensive elements during prime time programs may be surprising to those who havent paid close attention to the rapid deterioration of network standards. What a Difference a Decade Makes finds network television content standards in freefall as we enter the 21st century. The overall level of offensive content in prime time has nearly tripled in the past decade.

The level of sexual material has more than tripled. For example,

  • Oral sex, never mentioned during the 1989 study period, was alluded to 20 times during four weeks in 1999.
  • References to kinky sex rose from 13 mentions to 60 mentions.
  • Specific references to genitalia during prime time have risen 700%.
  • References to homosexuality are 24 times more common now than in 1989.

The use of vulgar language has risen 565%, rising from an average of less than one use per hour of programming in 1989, to nearly five instances every hour in 1999.

Astonishing as these numbers are, they tell only part of the story. The quality of the sexual material and offensive language has changed along with the quantity.

While the use of foul language has gone up, the words used have become harsher and more explicit. Words that were never before heard on prime time have now become acceptable. References to kinky sexual acts have become punch lines for what passes as humor, or are gratuitously inserted as components in plotlines to add a touch of the macabre to dramas. Many of the raunchiest shows today are also those aimed at teens and children. WWF Smackdown!, for instance, with one of the highest rates of offensive material in all three categories, is viewed by three million children under the age of 18, about half of whom are between the ages of two and 11.

The recent tragic killing of a first-grade girl by a first-grade boy near Flint, Michigan is just the latest example of the influence of television on the young. As Genesee County prosecutor Arthur Busch, put it about the six-year-old killer, He appeared to take this as, Well, this just kinda happens on television. The boys father knew the culprit was his son as soon as he heard about the shooting, as he said, because his son liked to watch the violent movies, the television shows. Despite all the anecdotal evidence, despite the studies piling up that all point to the impact of television on young minds, children watching prime time television today will see as much violence as they did a decade ago.

But the attitudes that engender violence are also reinforced by the other messages put out by television in ever-increasing doses. So-called entertainment television aimed at children is teaching them to use the vile and profane language that is the hallmark of hostility and disrespect. Television regularly exposes children to discussions about degrading sexual practices that have never before been the subject of polite conversation. They will see their television friends and role models viewing pornography, discussing masturbation, and making reference to oral sex and all manner of fetishes. They will learn a vocabulary for bodily functions and sexual organs and acts that will match the vocabulary of a hardened sailor.

What parents will find on broadcast television today is literally crapa word that was used 41 times during a four-week period last fall, as compared with only 5 times during a similar period in 1989.

Parents today are besieged by an omnipresent television culture that has seemingly launched an all-out assault on both the childs innocence and the adults intelligence. The networks headlong pursuit of the lowest common denominator during the past decade has placed a heavy burden on parents who must now vigilantly monitor what their children are being exposed to even in their own homes, even during the so-called family hour. What a Difference a Decade Makes suggests that network programming is already unsuitable for family viewing virtually across the board.

Like it or not, television has the power to set the standards for what is publicly acceptable in speech and behavior. Broadcasters are privileged with free use of the public airwaves, but with that privilege has historically come a responsibility to serve the public interest. This Parents Television Council study finds that broadcasters have abandoned their responsibilities and abrogated the public trust by abandoning minimum standards for content. It also shows that there are precious few shows a parent can turn to if he or she wants to change the channel to avoid the trash that has become endemic on network TV. This study shows that offensive and inappropriate content has spread throughout the networks, crowding out real options for families.

On behalf of the 4850,000 members of the Parents Television Council and the vast majority of parents in this country fed up with this sewage, were saying Enough is Enough. We are calling on the networks and advertisers to accept, along with parents, their responsibility to children and to the future, and to consider the awesome power of televisions images and messages when they make their programming and sponsorship decisions. Over the past 18 months the PTC has spent over $4.5 million on the largest newspaper advertising blitz in history, running full-page ads I over 900 newspapers nationwide. This campaign to hold Hollywood and its sponsors accountable for the trash they produce and fund will not only continue, it will be intensified this year.

The theme for our national campaign is simple: Clean Up TV Now! Its not something were requesting. Its something were demanding.



Bozell III, L. Brent. On the Study: What a Difference a Decade Makes: A Comparison of Prime Time Sex, Language, and Violence in 1989 and 99. Parents Television Council. (March 30, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the Parents Television Council.

The Author

L. Brent Bozell III is Chairman of the Parents Television

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